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China and Japan face off: Tiny islands, big dispute (+video)

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In fact, Japan's better-trained and more-professional Navy would likely defeat China's fleet should it somehow come to a shooting war, according to most foreign security analysts.

Just for show?

But the saber rattling is likely just for show, says Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies in Beijing. "Neither side wants to recklessly provoke, and both know where the limits are," he says.

Professor Zhu worries, though, that "a mismanaged crisis is very possible, and that could lead to conflict."

The waters near the islands are currently the scene of a dangerous maritime ballet involving Japanese Coast Guard vessels, Chinese fisheries surveillance ships, and Coast Guard boats from Taiwan, which also claims the territory.

So far, hostilities have been limited to water-cannon duels, as happened Sept. 24 between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels. But "when you have that many boats sailing around, the potential for mishap is quite high," points out Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The danger, adds Valérie Niquet, a China analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, is that a collision, a sinking, or a fatality "could start something that would be difficult to stop," especially since China and Japan have no procedures in place to handle maritime crises.

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